Saturday | 08.17.02

For the first time in my life I was able to watch a group of musicians get together and pay tribute to a fallen band mate. On August 17th and 18th, I watched Widespread Panic bring the heat, exactly one week after the passing of the man named Panic, Michael Houser. In fact, ever since the 3rd of July - the first time Mikey did not humbly walk out onto the stage and take his seat with the band - I think "The Boys" have been playing fierce. Why would Jo Jo, Todd, J.B., Dave, and the new fabulous duo (George McConell and Randall Bramlett) do any different? They set the tone in Milwaukee and haven’t slowed down since. Sure, I miss that unschooled “piercing your ear” twanging that erupted from Mikey’s Telecaster. Heck, that sound would make you let go of the steering wheel while drivin’ down the interstate at unmentionable speeds just so you could chair dance your ass off..."it’s the only way to fly." And, although Panic has been playing strong shows, they really brought the heat in Colorado.

Personally I am very thankful that I was able to see the band before they take a well deserved break, and Colorado is such a beautiful place for an event of this magnitude. All in all, the Seven Fiddler’s Festival was an amazing gathering. There was a great mix of music, Particle, Ben Harper, Karl Denson, Jerry Joseph, Keller Williams, all with the Rocky Mountains and a gorgeous sunset as the backdrop. It proved to be a dynamic festival with great people from all over. The best part was Colorado's ability to play host to the plethora of us who gathered to celebrate Mikey.

People gave out stickers in the parking lot that said “Mikey: We miss you!” I couldn’t believe how many pages and pages of them were given out on Saturday afternoon before the show. One kid walked around passing out drawings of Mikey’s face that were amazingly well done - and for free. There were T-shirts that read “Bless this Houser” and of course “I Love Mikey.” Posters that had photographs of Mikey at Red Rocks and the words that read As Panic Grabbed My Legs You Know He Pulled Me In were handed out around the parking garage. At first I was impressed with how the crowd was so ready to celebrate and then I thought “Hey, this is Widespread! Would it be any other way?!” I ran into friends, both new and old. People that I had seen on my ‘honeymoon tour,’ people that I had met earlier this summer, you know, some of my best friends in the world that I hardly ever see. There’s no place like a Panic show to reunite and be ecstatic. And that’s when it struck me...there should have never been any doubt that people would celebrate (not mourn) Mikey’s life at this festival. The comfortable sadness we all felt in the presence of one another was just what I, along with all the other SpreadHeads, were in need of.

The crowd and the venue security had a very harmonious relationship, which was wonderful. A good deal of the security ‘force’ was wearing Mardi Gras beads. In fact, one police office asked my wife and I “Who is Mikey and why do we miss him?” Meredith, my wife, and I stopped and talked with the polite police officer for a few minutes about Mikey. As we walked away, I told him that I thought his Pink Mardi Gras beads were ‘pimp.’ He told me that he agreed and winked at us. It was just that type of weekend.

There was no doubt about it, the heat on Saturday was relentless. Simply put, it was hot as hell. But since many of the bands were during the sweltering daylight hours, we went inside pretty early on Saturday. We were able to find some space to sit down, and cool off right inside the venue near the second stage.

Finally, the sun started setting and it was time for the main event. Widespread took the stage promptly at 7pm with an enthusiastic version of "Imitation Leather Shoes." I found it to be a captivating show opener and it really set the tone for the momentous set.

The last show I had seen was Indianapolis, IN, and I could see how both George and Randall’s roles had become more defined since then. In fact, George’s ability to smoothly run down the guitar’s neck and burst out into a fret board frenzy is so subtle, you almost don't realize it's potency. He never attempts to over shadow any member of the band. In fact, it seems that he is very comfortable with his new position. I’ll be the first to admit it, as I did in Wisconsin; to see a guy standing near Mikey’s part of the stage, singing and playing lead axe, seems awkward as hell. But, when you hear George sing and play you quickly notice that he knows when to bust it out and when to lay back quietly. It is clearly evident that his contribution compliments WSP’s style.

I’ve always said that there’s nothing like hearing the "six headed monster" with a couple of horns. Now, I know that Randall Bramlett is not a couple of horns, but you have to admit that he is a darn good sax player. He takes the spotlight with pride when it’s his turn to shine, however, he doesn’t look awkward when he’s on stage doing nothing, which can sometime be a hard thing to do. Personally, I enjoy the horn since it ads a new element to the band. Instead of just adding a new guitar player, this second addition signifies the end of one WSP era and the beginning of another. Kudos to "The Boys!"

The first set was simply phenomenal. It was like each sequential song became that much louder and louder. The crowd’s energy mirrored the band’s as the quality of music increased with every note. However, each song, though powerful and earth shaking, had a mellow mood and a somber tone. It was like Widespread wanted to remind us all and have us take notice that the man usually sitting stage right, the shy man hiding behind the hair, would never be sitting there again. Instead of choosing to play somber songs that brought the house down like in Milwaukee ("Hope in a Hopeless World," "Pickin’ Up The Pieces," and the "Down"), they played rocking songs that reached in and massaged your soul. The "Walk On-> Stop-Go-> Cream Puff War" was a musical change that somehow managed to dwarf the magnificent sunset over the Rockies. Yet the transition between all three songs was sweet music to the ears. After a few telling notes, WSP drifted into the perfect new sing along song, "Bayou Lena." Man, she’s just a beautiful girl. This was, without a doubt, the introduction to the climax of the set for me. "Wondering." What many of us were doing out on the way to the show:

I've been driving
Thinking about you and me
And I'm thinking
Wonderin' 'bout the things I see

As the song ended the band jumped into the familiar first precussionary beats of "Space Wrangler." A song that has the style of Mikey “Panic” Houser sprinkled throughout it. Heck, they’ve been playing it since ‘85. And with a final verse that toasts friendship and dreams, I’ll tip my "Tall Boy" to that any day. Man, what a set. For my own sake I was glad they took a break cause I needed to rest.

The set break was very calm. If I remember correctly, there was some killer Bob Dylan played and many hugs exchanged. I mean, I’ve been to plenty of concerts where people are running into long lost buddies and hugging. However, these hugs were like no other. People were glad to be amongst fellow heads celebrating Mikey’s life. In fact, many of them were so ecstatic, that people passed out large candles during the set break. I’d say that almost every person at the show had received a candle or had a lighter ready by the beginning of the set. By the time Widespread Panic took the stage the crowd looked like a sea of torches. The band was breathless. In fact, this was the only time that I can remember J.B. actually talking to/about Mikey without using song. Though I can’t recall the exact words he used, it was something to the effect of:

"Thank you very much Mikey Houser. Now let’s all have a moment of joyous sound!

At this point the band ripped into the most impressive version of "Papa Legba" I had ever heard. Those opening notes just screamed out in Panic’s signature style. Nothing like a good David Byrne song to get you right back in the mind set to dance. A little "Henry Parsons Died," "All Time Low," and "Little Lilly" for those of you that like to hear the old school tunes intermixed with the new. Then it was Randall’s turn to shine on us with a little song. He stepped up to the mike and belted his own "Get In Get Out." It’s a tune played in a much different style than the traditional Panic genre, so it’s nice to see "The Boys" mix it up a bit. Then, all of a sudden, there it was..."ARLEEN." The new WSP plays this tune very well, and has played it well since Randall and George started playing with them on July 3rd. I won’t lie, I’m not the biggest fan of drums, but I’ve always said that Sunny and Todd can do some crazy things when they play alone together. Ever since I first saw Sunny play all alone on stage, I was fascinated with his style. Saturday night was no different. Though I play no musical instruments, I can easily see that there are hardly two men alive that can make juggle a beat like these two individuals on drums. In terms of how you can end sets..."Love Tractor-> Chilly Water"? Honestly, as far as Panic goes, can you top that? I think I was ‘bouncin on my seat’ from the opening note, through the last “Neeha Neeeeeeeeeeeeha”, up until the last drop of someone’s water had splashed on my forearm.

I walked back to sit down on some flat land as the band left the stage. I was thinking that they were going to really rip the Encore. I was figuring one song to blow the roof off this amphitheater. The group of people I was with sat down a bit, rehashed the performance and chilled out. Before we each finished trading stories, the lights went dim. Panic was back and, instead of killing the place with thunderous sounds, they dropped us to our knees in remembrance. By the way, many people let their candles burn throughout the entire set and they were still burning at this point. Though the band made sure that we had a dance your ass off party, they reminded us that we are still a man down. We are now a bit different from that six-headed monster to which we’ve grown accustomed. In order to celebrate Mikey’s life and immortalize him for the evening, the band chose two very perfect songs: "Old Joe" and a Mikey staple "Porch Song."

The end of the first night of this absolutely perfect festival left everyone with a feeling of absolute bliss. Though it is a somber time for all the Panic fans, we each should hope to "live long and lucky" throughout our entire life while "havin' a good time."

Sunday | 08.18.02

The Sunday show is always a treat. I believe I’ve heard many of my peeps say, “no matter what you do, don’t miss the Sunday show.” And on this particular Sunday, the rule was no exception. It was another gorgeous day amongst the Rockies. The best part was, mid-afternoon, someone above was smiling down on us in the form of rain that dropped the temperature 10 degrees. It was the kind of rain that hardly gets you wet, but cools you down. I think I was only hit by six, big, chilly raindrops. It made the early part of the evening perfect in terms of weather since it was pretty warm for most of the day. The clouds rolled in and covered both the brightness and the heat at about 5:45. This was perfect since Widespread was scheduled to make an appearance much earlier than normal. "The Boys" were scheduled to take the stage at roughly 6:30 so I was welcoming the rainless cloud cover. After all, the lights are always a great complement to the music at a Widespread show and we all know a good light show gets no justice in the daytime.

The amazing, and I know it’s an overused word but, vibe of the crowd was like nothing I had ever been a part of. I couldn’t believe how everyone was still so energized after the first day. At most of the festivals I’ve attended, the second day is the strung out day. People are usually passed out in the most uncomfortable places because they are absolutely worn down. However, that wasn’t the case at Fiddlers Green. Maybe there were one or two people that went "too far" the night before. But it was, by far, the most respectful group of people I had ever seen gathered together for a show. People were still in the parking lots giving out stickers, jewelry, water, and t-shirts on Sunday. Kids sitting in the parking garage trading music and Mikey stories. It wasn’t until later in the night that my wife pointed it out to me, but many people came to the show dressed in purple. Coincidentally, the ribbons that were given out in exchange for donations and kind wishes by the Pancreatic Cancer Foundation were also purple. It was truly a magnificent group of people gathered together for at least one common reason. Everyone wanted a chance to celebrate Mikey’s life with the band one last time before they go home to patch their wounds. The way this previously thrown festival quickly morphed into a tribute to Houser’s life was amazing and much needed.

I’d be willing to bet that most people took a couple moments before the band came out and glanced up at the sky, thought of Mikey, their favorite Mikey jam, their first show, whatever it was that created this Panic fascination within. And when they did this, it was cathartic. And then it was time.

Leisurely, the band walked out onto the stage and took their spots in front of all of us. Still a little dumbfounded from the brilliance of their previous night’s set, I had no idea what to expect from them. They busted into a really nice version of "Old Neighborhood." This is a song that I’m not extremely familiar with, but I found it a surprising show opener, and I love surprises. Their somber mood was apparent in the very first notes, and how can you blame them for that. Their best friend for 20 years just passed away the previous week. How they were holding up so well in a crowd was beyond me. Night after night since early July, these five guys have been traveling around and playing music while their best friend wasn’t there. It would be impossible for their music to not have the colors of pain woven throughout each and every song. It still tears me up each and every time I remember that he’s gone. And then, while I was mentally chewing on Mikey’s absence, it all came together.

In one instant a bar of music ceased where my thoughts were going. I stopped everything and stood still. I watched each and every one of them - Schools, Sunny, Todd, Randall, J.B. George, and JoJo - prepare for what they were all about to play. "Action Man." What a symbolic song for this tributary night. A song that caused J.B. to look up into the sky at something only he could see and say:

Fire inside, blaze of glory, space in time Heart of gold, limbs of steel, Man-Of-War

Not that I wasn’t fond of "Old Neighborhood," but "Action Man" really seemed like the perfect song for that moment. I felt like everyone in the house was singing back up to J.B.’s lead. It’s times like this I wish I could phonetically type out guitar riffs just to convey the shock when the first few cords of "Radio Child" were played. It wasn’t played after the Dallas, Texas show for a while, but George has sure picked it up quickly. Not that I don’t spend a good deal of every day wishing for that raunchy, in your face soulful sound that’s now absent in such guitar driven tunes. But I have grown to love this band, and I’m curious to see how this unfortunate occurrence will shape their future. For example, it’s interesting to watch the band during such heavily influenced Houser songs like "Radio Child" since they are all capable and willing to steer the new direction of the song. Yet, they can also each unite their sounds in such a unique way that it takes on it's own form. This is why the addition of a man like George is so important. His ability to sit back and let other’s take the reins makes songs like "Radio Child" sound that much more fresh. Plus, when it’s his turn, he can add to the music. But most importantly, George and Randall have great chemistry with "The Boys" which is why it works.

During "Rebirtha," I stumbled upon an old friend. I think it’s a great song. I was kinda sad that it was just melodious background music to our nostalgic stories. Ahh, festival life! It’s bound to happen during some song. Since we both had missed "Rebirtha" we surely took notice when we heard "Stop Breakin’ Down." Nothing like a little Robert Johnson to get back to the heart and soul of rock and roll.

Widespread Panic then decided to do what had to be done. They took some time out to focus on the fact that Mikey was gone and they missed him dearly. They did this so clearly through the song "Down," and how could they not. It still brings tears to my eyes when I picture them playing this song. You could see the pain in all of their eyes. It’s one of the most appropriate titled songs out there. The lyrics are just so depressing. It’s pertinent to mention that this song was played at Summerfest this year, the first show Mikey could not join the band onstage.

Take along some of your favorite things
'Cause you're gonna need 'em
Wait right here
Wait 'til I come back around
You and I will go
We'll just sit and watch it all go down
Down Down

I can’t imagine what it's like backstage when they decide to include this song in the set list. Every single time I think about this song, and their ability as professionals to keep playing it, I cry. To me, this moment was the second most powerful part of the weekend long eulogy to Mr. Michael Houser.

Obviously, the tempo had to be picked up because the crowd was feeling pretty down at this point. George McConnell was the one to step up to the plate and create the change of mood. His song "Doreatha" arrived at the perfect part of the set. It symbolized how the band has turned over a new leaf. And to play this George McConnell staple right after we reach rock bottom shows how much everyone (fans and band included) have taken a liking to his ability to mesh with the monster. Then, in a moments notice, as usual, the band roller-coastered us back to full fledged rock-n-roll with "One Arm Steve." And I’ve got to tell you when Panic plays that song, they’ve always got my ear. After all, they always seem, to know “what’s going on.”

The first set was a tad longer than I had expected. Since they were scheduled so early on Sunday, I was a bit worried that the music would impede some noise violation. I’m sure we’ve all been to shows where either the band was ‘unplugged’ or the venue just terminates the show by simply flipping the light switch. Regardless, the break allowed for some time to chill out and talk with friends. Of course, in my mind, all I could think about was the "Radio Child" and the "Down" that I heard. They were incredible. Oh yeah, there was also that breath-taking sunset over the Rocky Mountains again. Ahhh.

There weren’t as many candles or lighters lit on Sunday as the band entered the stage for part two. I remember turning to my wife, surprised that this was the last scheduled Widespread Panic set of the weekend. However, they didn’t fall short at all. Every moment of the set lived up to my expectation. The familiar sound of the chimes as Sunny stroked into "Drivin Song" sent chills up my spine. As the guitar lead filtered in, it was obvious George wasn't on stage. The tone was different. I looked around and it came to my attention that long time Panic guitar tech, Sam Holt was playing the Telecaster! Holly Shit is right. Holt filled in for an inspired set two opener.

Meanwhile, I was getting ready for a "Driving Song" sandwich since Widespread usually buries songs so nicely amongst Drivin’. Then, BAM! "Sleepy Monkey." One of those songs that the band has been playing since the mid 80’s, a song Mikey helped develop throughout the years, and they owned it. Right in the middle, J.B. busted out with his "Kinky Reggae" rap. So soft, so subtle, and so J.B. Without hesitation, the band cruised back into "Driving Song."

What would a Sunday night show be if Panic didn’t invite someone on stage to play with them. And Sunday night’s winner in Denver was none other than Mr. Jerry Joseph (Who, by the way, rocked Fiddler’s for a LONG time that same day and provided late night entertainment on Saturday night after the show with a few very special guests of his own). Jerry chose to lead the band in a little tune called "North." Mr. Joseph took turns trading licks with J.B. and guitar jams with George. If you’ve never heard this song before, this might be a good one to hear first. As I wrote on my set list, "The Boys" owned it.

At this point the man behind the sax finally took to the mike. He just calmly walked up to it and belted out a wonderful version of "God was in the Water." This was my first encounter with the song. It really didn’t sound like the Panic I had grown to love, but I loved it for the same reason as I love much of their newer stuff, it shows they are growing. As they were jamming out to the end, I started picking up on a familiar bass line. Schools started to drop some notes that my ear picked up on. Nanoseconds later, the rest of my body caught on and I was up and at ‘em., ridin’ high as ever. J.J. Cale sure could lay down some sick lyrics, and "Ride Me High" is one such out-of-control song. Then, the drummers took over. As I mentioned previously, I enjoy drums, but I’m no percussionist. Some nights they make me get up and dance like crazy, other nights I sit and relax. On this particular night, there were a couple guest drummers. It was Sunday after all. A few members from Ben Harper’s band sat in with Sunny and Todd. By the time Schools came out, the beat they had going was out of control. Schools was off the charts by the time the rest of the guys got out there. In fact, Dave was reachin’ so deep that the ground was bursting. I’ve seen Schools pull this type of deep rumbling off inside arenas and such, but it’s hard to pull off hard hitting notes like that in the open aired business district of Suburban Denver.

I think it was even before JoJo had fully set up for the next set that I realized we were about to hear "Goin’ Out West." In my own mind, I believe that when it comes to covering Tom Waits, J.B. is the man for the job. Luckily, I have had the pleasure of seeing it a good deal of times for how often it gets played. I remember each time vividly. The fact that this was the first time I had seen it near the West Coast made it that much more rich. I consider the next song to be the end of the set. Not because I think that the set ended with "Surprise Valley," but because the transition from "Valley" into "Climb to Safety" was so smooth. It was like one song in itself. Brilliantly planned. Think about it this way. Widespread is playing amongst the mountains, and the man that is leading them in song suddenly changes everything. He begins to sing to us about how we will never be alone. And that man sings it exactly the way he sang it with and to Mikey the last few times they played it together. And, as they get to that note in "Climb to Safety" that ends the song, the brilliantly put together second set reached its end. But there were still more tears to be shed on this evening.

After what seemed to be an eternity, the band returned for the encore. It was a well deserved break as the band played Neil Young’s song "Don’t be Denied." This was the quintessential selection, the best possible song for that moment. I’m not sure how, but none of the guys in the band collapsed to their knees in tears during this song. I’m actually surprised they pulled it off. I, along with a multitude of others in the crowd, wept deeply. How could you not?

Pretty soon I met a friend,
Who played guitar
We'd sit on the steps at school,
And dream of being stars
We started a band,
We played all night

Don't be denied
Don't be denied
Don't be denied
Don't be denied
Don't be denied
Oh, friend of mine
Don't be denied

Being the true professionals that they are, of course they pulled it off. They stood in front of the crowd motionless, yet full of emotion. I think all they could do from breaking down into tears was think about their next song "Travelin’ Light." A song "The Boys" have been playing forever. I can assure you that they played it with the utmost class. A solid tune to end the Summer.

A Summer that was highlighted by severe ups and downs within the Widespread Panic community. We all saw them headline the biggest music festival in the country for two days in a row back at Bonnaroo. We saw them break back and forth and zigzag around in bizarre patterns to amazingly gorgeous venues, as always. But most pain-stakingly, we watched the band lose one of its founding fathers, and right in front of us. How quickly this all took place. Seems like Bonnaroo was yesterday and Mikey and J.B. and the rest of "The Boys" were up there playing music, all together...

I didn't see you were right next to me
But I'm so glad you could make it.
With you by my side, I might get back alive
From my next vacation

Mikey, you live on in all of us and I have you to thank for "pullin’ me in." You are dearly missed but you are surely not forgotten. I have the Seven Fiddler’s Festival to thank for my opportunity to say good-bye.

Mark Oxborough
JamBase | World Wide
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[Published on: 8/26/02]

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